Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis treatment (Beyond the Basics)
- PJW Venables, MA, MB BChir, MD, FRCP
PJW Venables, MA, MB BChir, MD, FRCP
- Professor of Viral Immunorheumatology
- Kennedy Institute, Oxford University
RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS OVERVIEW
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory condition affecting the joints. The condition can also affect other tissues throughout the body. The specific causes of rheumatoid arthritis are unknown, though smoking increases the risk of disease and the severity of rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms develop gradually, and it is not always possible to know when the disease first developed. Many people have symptoms that are present continuously, some have symptoms that completely resolve, and others have alternating periods of bothersome symptoms and complete resolution. The onset, severity, and specific symptoms of this condition can vary greatly from person to person.
Treatment plays a key role in controlling the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis and in minimizing joint damage. Treatment usually entails a combination of drug therapy and other non-drug therapies. In some cases, treatment may also involve surgery.
The treatment of rheumatoid arthritis must be tailored to each patient's individual case, including the severity of the condition, the effectiveness of specific therapies, and the occurrence of any side effects. Treatment choices may be different for a person with rheumatoid arthritis who has other illnesses, especially those of the liver or kidneys. It is important to work with a health care provider to create an effective and acceptable plan for treating rheumatoid arthritis.
This topic review discusses the medical treatments that are used for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. A number of other topics about rheumatoid arthritis are available separately. (See "Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis and pregnancy (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Complementary and alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis (Beyond the Basics)".)
GENERAL PRINCIPLES OF RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS TREATMENT
The aim of rheumatoid arthritis treatment is to control a patient's signs and symptoms, prevent joint damage, and maintain the patient's quality of life and ability to function . Joint damage caused by rheumatoid arthritis generally occurs within the first two years of diagnosis, and it is difficult to predict which individuals will develop long-term complications. Therefore, the initial treatment of rheumatoid arthritis aims to eliminate or minimize inflammation. However, the risk of side effects from treatment must be weighed against the benefits. Treatments that can potentially stop joint damage are generally recommended for all patients with rheumatoid arthritis. (See "General principles of management of rheumatoid arthritis in adults".)
Long-term medical care with regularly scheduled visits is essential for the successful treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. This care often entails medical visits and tests to assess the effectiveness of treatment and to monitor for side effects.
Nonpharmacologic therapies include treatments other than medications and are the foundation of treatment for all people with rheumatoid arthritis. There are a wide variety of nonpharmacologic therapies available.
Education and counseling — Education and counseling can help you to better understand the nature of rheumatoid arthritis and cope with the challenges of this condition. You and your health care providers can work together to formulate a long-term treatment plan, define reasonable expectations, and evaluate both standard and alternative treatment options.
Nonpharmacologic measures such as biofeedback and cognitive behavioral therapy may help in controlling rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. These measures can reduce pain and disability and improve self-esteem. Programs on topics such as self-management skills, social support, biofeedback, and psychotherapy are offered by the Arthritis Foundation in the United States and by similar organizations worldwide. These services are also offered by many hospitals and clinics. These programs have been shown to reduce pain, depression, and disability in people with arthritis and to allow them to gain some control over their illness.
Rest — Fatigue is a common symptom of rheumatoid arthritis. Inflamed joints should be rested, but physical fitness should be maintained as much as possible. Several studies have shown that physical fitness improves the quality of sleep, which in turn helps with fatigue. The advice of physical and occupational therapists should be sought for help with fitness programs if joint pain or limited joint motion interferes with exercise activities.
Exercise — Pain and stiffness often prompt people with rheumatoid arthritis to become inactive. Unfortunately, inactivity can lead to a loss of joint motion, contractions, and a loss of muscle strength. Weakness, in turn, decreases joint stability and further increases fatigue.
Regular exercise can help prevent and reverse these effects . Several different kinds of exercise can be beneficial, including range-of-motion exercises to preserve and restore joint motion, exercises to increase strength (isometric, isotonic, and isokinetic exercises), and exercises to increase endurance (walking, swimming, and cycling).
Exercise programs for people with rheumatoid arthritis should be designed by a physical therapist and tailored to the severity of your condition, build, and former activity level. A separate article discusses exercise and arthritis. (See "Patient education: Arthritis and exercise (Beyond the Basics)".)
Physical and occupational therapy — Physical and occupational therapy can relieve pain, reduce inflammation, and help preserve joint structure and function for patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Specific types of therapy are used to address specific effects of rheumatoid arthritis:
●The application of heat or cold can relieve pain or stiffness.
●Ultrasound may reduce inflammation of the sheaths surrounding tendons (tenosynovitis).
●Passive and active exercises can improve and maintain range of motion of the joints.
●Rest and rest splinting can reduce joint pain and improve joint function.
●Finger splinting and other assistive devices can prevent deformities and improve hand function.
●Relaxation techniques can relieve secondary muscle spasm.
Physical therapy may also include a consultation with a podiatrist who can make foot orthotics (devices that ensure correct position of the foot) and supportive footwear. Occupational therapists also focus on helping people with rheumatoid arthritis to be able to continue to actively participate in work and recreational activities, with special attention to maintaining good function of the hands and arms.
Nutrition and dietary therapy — People with active rheumatoid arthritis sometimes lose their appetite or are unable to eat an adequate amount of food. Dietary therapy helps to ensure that you eat an adequate amount of calories and nutrients. However, weight loss may be recommended for overweight and obese people to reduce stress on inflamed joints. (See "Patient education: Weight loss treatments (Beyond the Basics)".)
People with rheumatoid arthritis have a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease. High blood cholesterol is one risk factor for coronary disease that can respond to changes in diet. A nutritionist can recommend specific foods to eat or avoid to achieve a desirable cholesterol level. (See "Patient education: High cholesterol and lipids (hyperlipidemia) (Beyond the Basics)".)
Changes in diet have been investigated as treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. The addition of fish oils and some plant oils, such as borage seed oil, have modestly improved arthritis pain and joint swelling. However, there is no diet that can cure rheumatoid arthritis. No herbal or nutritional supplements, such as cartilage or collagen, can cure rheumatoid arthritis; these treatments can be dangerous and are not usually recommended. (See "Patient education: Complementary and alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis (Beyond the Basics)".)
Smoking and alcohol — Several different studies have shown that smoking is a risk factor for rheumatoid arthritis and that quitting smoking can improve disease. People who smoke need to quit completely. Assistance in quitting should be obtained if needed. Moderate alcohol consumption is not harmful to rheumatoid arthritis, although it may increase the risk of liver damage from some drugs such as methotrexate. People should discuss the safety of alcohol use with their doctor because recommendations depend on the medications a person is taking and their other medical conditions. (See "Patient education: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)".)
Measures to reduce bone loss — Rheumatoid arthritis causes bone loss, which can lead to osteoporosis. Bone loss is more likely in people who are inactive. The use of glucocorticoids, such as prednisone, further increases the risk of bone loss, especially in postmenopausal women. (See "Patient education: Bone density testing (Beyond the Basics)".)
Several measures can minimize the bone loss associated with steroid therapy :
●Use the lowest possible dose of glucocorticoids for the shortest possible time, when possible, to minimize bone loss.
●Consume an adequate amount of calcium and vitamin D, either in the diet or by taking supplements. (See "Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (Beyond the Basics)".)
●Use medications that can reduce bone loss, including that which is caused by glucocorticoids. (See "Patient education: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)".)
RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS MEDICATIONS
Medications are the cornerstone of treatment for active rheumatoid arthritis. The goals of treatment with rheumatoid arthritis medications are to achieve remission and prevent further damage of the joints and loss of function, without causing permanent or unacceptable side effects.
The type and intensity of rheumatoid arthritis treatment with medication depends upon individual factors and potential drug side effects. In most cases, the dose of a medication is increased until inflammation is suppressed or until drug side effects become unacceptable.
The challenge of using medications is to balance the side effects against the need to control inflammation. All patients with rheumatoid arthritis who use medications need regular medical care and blood tests to monitor for complications. If side effects occur, they can often be minimized or eliminated by reducing the dose or switching to a different drug.
Several classes of drugs are used to treat rheumatoid arthritis: nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (which include both traditional DMARDs and biologic agents), glucocorticoids, and, if needed, pain medications.
NSAIDs — NSAIDs may be recommended to relieve pain and reduce minor inflammation. However, NSAIDs do not reduce the long-term damaging effects of rheumatoid arthritis on the joints.
NSAIDs must be taken continuously and at a specific dose to have an antiinflammatory effect. Even at the correct doses, NSAIDs must usually be taken for several weeks before their effectiveness is known. If the initial dose of NSAIDs does not improve symptoms, a clinician may recommend increasing the dose gradually or switching to another NSAID. You should not take two NSAIDs at the same time.
Many NSAIDS have significant side effects, including gastrointestinal bleeding, fluid retention, and an increased risk of heart disease. The risks need to be weighed carefully against the benefits when taking these drugs.
More detailed information about NSAIDs is available separately. (See "Patient education: Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (Beyond the Basics)".)
DMARDs — DMARDs can substantially reduce the inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis, reduce or prevent joint damage, preserve joint structure and function, and enable a person to continue his or her daily activities. Although some DMARDs act slowly, they may allow you to take a lower dose of glucocorticoids to control pain and inflammation. There are several types of DMARDs:
●Conventional synthetic DMARDs, sometimes termed traditional or small-molecule DMARDs, are produced by traditional drug-manufacturing techniques.
●Biologic DMARDs, sometimes termed targeted biologic agents, are manufactured using molecular biology (recombinant DNA) techniques.
●Another DMARD, tofacitinib, is produced by traditional drug-manufacturing techniques and can be taken as a pill, but has adverse effects similar to the biologic DMARDs and is sometimes referred to as a "targeted synthetic DMARD."
Conventional DMARDs — Drugs in this class include methotrexate, hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine, and leflunomide. Detailed information about these medications is available in a separate topic review. (See "Patient education: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (Beyond the Basics)".)
An improvement in symptoms may require four to six weeks of treatment with methotrexate, one to two months of treatment with sulfasalazine, and two to three months of treatment with hydroxychloroquine. Even longer durations of treatment may be needed to derive the full benefits of these drugs. (See "Use of methotrexate in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis".)
Biologic DMARDs — Biologic DMARDs, also known as biologic agents or biologics, are DMARDs that were designed to prevent or reduce the inflammation that damages joints. Biologics target molecules on cells of the immune system, joints, and the products that are secreted in the joints, all of which can cause inflammation and joint destruction. There are several types of biologics, each of which targets a specific type of molecule involved in this process. (See "Overview of biologic agents and kinase inhibitors in the rheumatic diseases".)
Biologics are often reserved for people who have not completely responded to conventional DMARDs and for those who cannot tolerate DMARDs in doses large enough to control inflammation.
Biologics that bind tumor necrosis factor (TNF) include etanercept, adalimumab, infliximab, certolizumab pegol, and golimumab. These are called anti-TNF agents or TNF inhibitors. There are additional biologics that target other molecules instead of TNF. These are usually used for people with arthritis that is not well controlled with methotrexate and one of the anti-TNF agents.
Unlike DMARDs, which can take a month or more to begin working, biologics tend to work rapidly, within two weeks for some medications and within four to six weeks for others. Biologics may be used alone or in combination with other DMARDs (eg, methotrexate), NSAIDs, and/or glucocorticoids (steroids).
All biologic agents must be injected. Some can be injected under the skin by the patient, a family member, or nurse. There are others that must be injected into a vein, which is typically done in a doctor's office or clinic; this takes between one and three hours to complete.
Side effects — Biologic agents interfere with the immune system's ability to fight infection and should not be used in people with serious infections.
Testing for tuberculosis (TB) is necessary before starting anti-TNF therapy. People who have evidence of prior TB infection should be treated because there is an increased risk of developing active TB while receiving anti-TNF therapy. (See "Patient education: Tuberculosis (Beyond the Basics)".)
Anti-TNF agents are not recommended for people who have lymphoma or who have been treated for lymphoma in the past; people with rheumatoid arthritis, especially those with severe disease, have an increased risk of lymphoma regardless of what treatment is used. Anti-TNF agents have been associated with a further increase in the risk of lymphoma in some studies but not others; more research is needed to define this risk.
Steroids (glucocorticoids) — Glucocorticoids, also called steroids, have strong antiinflammatory effects. Drugs in this class include prednisone and prednisolone. Glucocorticoids may be taken by mouth, injected into a vein, or injected directly into a joint. Glucocorticoids quickly improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis such as pain and stiffness and also decrease joint swelling and tenderness.
Glucocorticoids are generally used to treat rheumatoid arthritis that severely limits a person's ability to function normally. For such people, glucocorticoid treatment may help control symptoms and preserve function until other slower-acting drugs with greater ability to prevent joint damage begin to work. They may also be used to treat flares of disease while a person is receiving other treatments.
Side effects — Steroids have many possible side effects, including weight gain, worsening diabetes, promotion of cataracts in the eyes, thinning of bones (osteopenia and osteoporosis), and an increased risk of infection. Thus, when steroids are used, the goal is to use the lowest possible dose for the shortest period of time.
Pain relievers — Pain relievers relieve pain, but they have no effect on inflammation. Drugs in this class include acetaminophen, tramadol, and capsaicin cream or ointment. Use of narcotics like codeine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone is generally discouraged because they also have no effect on inflammation and because of the long-term nature of rheumatoid arthritis and the risk of dependence and addiction.
However, people with a badly damaged joint who cannot undergo joint replacement surgery may benefit from use of a long-acting narcotic under the supervision of a rheumatologist or pain specialist.
Treatment of flares — Flares are temporary exacerbations of rheumatoid arthritis that can occur in addition to the ongoing inflammation. In people who are already taking methotrexate or oral steroids, flares can often be controlled by increasing the doses of these drugs. Alternatively, flares can be controlled by steroids that are given by injection. Rest is often helpful during flares; hospitalization is rarely necessary.
Which rheumatoid arthritis treatment will I get? — The type of drugs that your doctor recommends will depend on how severe your arthritis is and how well you respond to the medications. If you have early, mild arthritis, your treatment may be different from someone who has more severe arthritis or whose arthritis persists despite initial treatment efforts. In general, nearly all patients with rheumatoid arthritis will receive a DMARD as part of their treatment program. A different DMARD, whether one of the traditional DMARDs or a biologic agent, will be used either instead of or in addition to the initial drug if the treatment used is judged to be inadequate. (See "General principles of management of rheumatoid arthritis in adults" and "Alternatives to methotrexate for the initial treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults" and "Initial treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults" and "Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults resistant to initial nonbiologic DMARD therapy".)
A person with end-stage rheumatoid arthritis has little or no evidence of ongoing inflammation but often has significant joint damage with deformity and loss of joint function. End-stage rheumatoid arthritis treatment includes therapies that reduce pain and slow or prevent additional changes in joint structure and function.
Patients with end-stage rheumatoid arthritis may have pain due to joint damage rather than inflammation. In this case, surgery may be recommended to replace a damaged joint. (See "Patient education: Total hip replacement (arthroplasty) (Beyond the Basics)" and "Patient education: Total knee replacement (arthroplasty) (Beyond the Basics)".)
However, some joints cannot be successfully replaced. For such joints, a surgical fusion may be recommended to limit movements that cause pain.
Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis during pregnancy is discussed in detail in a separate topic review. (See "Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis and pregnancy (Beyond the Basics)".)
WHERE TO GET MORE INFORMATION
Your healthcare provider is the best source of information for questions and concerns related to your medical problem.
This article will be updated as needed on our web site (www.uptodate.com/patients). Related topics for patients, as well as selected articles written for healthcare professionals, are also available. Some of the most relevant are listed below.
Patient level information — UpToDate offers two types of patient education materials.
The Basics — The Basics patient education pieces answer the four or five key questions a patient might have about a given condition. These articles are best for patients who want a general overview and who prefer short, easy-to-read materials.
Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis (The Basics)
Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis and pregnancy (The Basics)
Patient education: Hip replacement (The Basics)
Patient education: Arthritis and exercise (The Basics)
Patient education: Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (The Basics)
Beyond the Basics — Beyond the Basics patient education pieces are longer, more sophisticated, and more detailed. These articles are best for patients who want in-depth information and are comfortable with some medical jargon.
Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and diagnosis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Rheumatoid arthritis and pregnancy (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Complementary and alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Arthritis and exercise (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Weight loss treatments (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: High cholesterol and lipids (hyperlipidemia) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Bone density testing (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Calcium and vitamin D for bone health (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Osteoporosis prevention and treatment (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Tuberculosis (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Total hip replacement (arthroplasty) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Total knee replacement (arthroplasty) (Beyond the Basics)
Patient education: Quitting smoking (Beyond the Basics)
Professional level information — Professional level articles are designed to keep doctors and other health professionals up-to-date on the latest medical findings. These articles are thorough, long, and complex, and they contain multiple references to the research on which they are based. Professional level articles are best for people who are comfortable with a lot of medical terminology and who want to read the same materials their doctors are reading.
Assessment of rheumatoid arthritis activity in clinical trials and clinical practice
Cervical subluxation in rheumatoid arthritis
Clinical manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis
Polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis: Clinical manifestations, diagnosis, and complications
Biologic markers in the diagnosis and assessment of rheumatoid arthritis
Diagnosis and differential diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis
Disease outcome and functional capacity in rheumatoid arthritis
Epidemiology of, risk factors for, and possible causes of rheumatoid arthritis
Evaluation and medical management of end-stage rheumatoid arthritis
General principles of management of rheumatoid arthritis in adults
Interstitial lung disease in rheumatoid arthritis
Pharmacology, dosing, and adverse effects of leflunomide in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
Polyarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis: Treatment
Ocular manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis
Overview of the systemic and nonarticular manifestations of rheumatoid arthritis
Randomized clinical trials in rheumatoid arthritis of biologic agents that inhibit IL-1, IL-6, and RANKL
Rheumatoid arthritis and pregnancy
Rituximab and other B cell targeted therapies for rheumatoid arthritis
Sulfasalazine: Pharmacology, administration, and adverse effects in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
T-cell targeted therapies for rheumatoid arthritis
Total joint replacement for severe rheumatoid arthritis
Alternatives to methotrexate for the initial treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults
Initial treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults
Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in adults resistant to initial nonbiologic DMARD therapy
Use of glucocorticoids in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
Use of methotrexate in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis
Overview of biologic agents and kinase inhibitors in the rheumatic diseases
The following organizations also provide reliable health information:
●National Library of Medicine
(www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/arthritis.html, available in Spanish)
●American College of Rheumatology
●The Arthritis Foundation
Patient support — There are a number of online forums where patients can find information and support from other people with similar conditions.
- American College of Rheumatology Subcommittee on Rheumatoid Arthritis Guidelines. Guidelines for the management of rheumatoid arthritis: 2002 Update. Arthritis Rheum 2002; 46:328.
- Van Den Ende CH, Vliet Vlieland TP, Munneke M, Hazes JM. Dynamic exercise therapy for rheumatoid arthritis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2000; :CD000322.
- Recommendations for the prevention and treatment of glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis: 2001 update. American College of Rheumatology Ad Hoc Committee on Glucocorticoid-Induced Osteoporosis. Arthritis Rheum 2001; 44:1496.
- Geusens P, Wouters C, Nijs J, et al. Long-term effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in active rheumatoid arthritis. A 12-month, double-blind, controlled study. Arthritis Rheum 1994; 37:824.
All topics are updated as new information becomes available. Our peer review process typically takes one to six weeks depending on the issue.